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Monday, September 9, 2013

How a 51 Year Old Field Notebook Triggered an Investigation at the Smithsonian

the cover of the Travelog for this South American Expedition
The travelog
On December 3rd, 1962, a scientist named Doris Mabel Cochran set off from New York on a Pan American jet plane. She was headed into South America to collect frog specimens on an expedition funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

As the first female curator for the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians at the Smithsonian, Cochran collected over 3,000 frog specimens from Brazil, Columbia, Peru and elsewhere. When she died in 1968, many of Cochran’s papers were passed to the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), including a travelog documenting collection events, descriptions of local flora and fauna, and daily activities of that trip in 1962.

Some 50 years after this grand expedition to South America, our innocuous travelog became involved in an entirely new adventure.

Who Really Authored the Travelog?

Earlier this summer, with the launch of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, we invited the public to come explore and contribute to our vast and rich collections from across science, art, history and culture.

The travelog was amongst the collected papers of Doris Mabel Cochran. The book never indicates directly who authored it, and in the official object description at SIA, it is simply noted that this travelog described events that occurred during the trip, and that it was a part of her papers. Professional archivists are always careful not to assume authorship, simply because some paper is part of a collection. People often save items authored by others in their own collections of papers -- most commonly we see letters from other people, but a journal could have been a gift or temporarily in Doris' possession at the time of her death.

However, in preparing the project description in the Transcription Center, we accidentally suggested that it was in fact Doris’s book by including the phrase “help us … by transcribing her travelog.” One of our volunteers, Miguel Torres Barrios, had made significant contributions to the Travelog project and noticed some inconsistencies between the notebook and this assumption of authorship, and he sent us this feedback:
“The TRAVELOG OF 1962-1963 SOUTH AMERICAN TRIP is not of Doris Cochran as it is noted. It does tell of her trip to South America, but this travelogue is of someone named Mildred, or so I assume, because it is made out to her, from "Mildred and Wanda", and since both Doris and Wanda are referred to in the third person, and there is no mention of Mildred as someone else. It would be beneficial to the project, and to give due credit to the author of the writings if this author were to be identified and named in the summary of the project.”
I was quickly advised that the Smithsonian Institution Archives did not assert authorship; however, they agreed that it was an important question that might be resolved by looking at other Doris Cochran papers. Doris was a common name in the 1960s, so it was possible that there was another Doris on the trip.

Tugging at the Threads

Travelog Inscription
I decided to look into the matter and follow the clues identified by Miguel.  The threads of our conversation started with two pages of the travelog:

  • One of the first pages of the book says “To Doris, From Wanda and Mildred” -- could this book be written by them?
  • The travelog includes an entry that says “This is Doris' birthday & I gave her 2 pr. stockings, which was the only suitable thing I had with me.” It seems strange for Doris Mabel Cochran to refer to herself in the third person. Could there be another Doris on the trip?

The first thread was quickly resolved: We know the trip begins Dec. 3rd since that’s the first date of the travelog, which is after the date signed by Wanda and Mildred. The travelog was probably given blank, on November 16th, 1962, as a gift to the mysterious author.

The second question required more digging. Whoever wrote the notebook was likely a key member of the trip, since the journal covers the entire duration, from the flight out of New York in December 1962 all the way to seeing the cats again in February 1963.

In March 2012, a Field Book Project blog post by Sonoe Nakasone identified this same question. Pamela Henson, SIA Historian, commented that “Doris Mable Cochran often traveled with her friend, Doris Holmes Blake;” however, we still had no real evidence.

Who was on the trip? To answer that question, we’d have to get our hands on some primary sources.

Diving into the Archives

The original travelog is in box 12 of the Doris Mabel Cochran papers, so that’s where our journey started.  I joined Ricc Ferrante, Director of Digital Services and IT Archivist at SIA, on an expedition into the archives.

Ricc pulls box 12 of the Doris Cochran collection
from the archive
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Ricc puts on white gloves to show me the travelog
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Ricc got his white gloves on and opened the box up. We got a look at the original 1962-1963 South America travelog, and also found some personal items from that same trip, information about a 1966 composium on animal venom, and a number of papers regarding the National Science Foundation grant that funded the trip to South America.

In that set of papers, we found the original NSF grant proposal for this trip to South America. In reading through it, we found our next big clue: Doris had a travel companion who would accompany her for most of the trip.

NSF grant funding the South America Expedition
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In the description of the proposed research: “Mrs. Sidney F. Blake, the coleopterist, an Honorary Research Associate of the Smithsonian Institution, will be visiting nearly the same museums at the same time, and it is planned to travel with her during most of this long journey.”

So who was this Mrs. Sidney F. Blake?

Seeing Double

Ellen looks at the digitized
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Ellen Allers at SIA took on the challenge of discovering the author of the travelog.  Her job, as reference archivist, is to solve mysteries every day. She knows that a woman is hard to track in history because she is often referred to by her husband's name. In any case, the next step was to find out more about Sidney F. Blake.

The first Google result for “Sidney F. Blake” leads us to a record at SIA. Blake was a botanist who studied at Harvard and then worked for 43 years at the USDA. Sidney could not be the travel companion referred to in the NSF grant -- he was not a coleopterist and a man.

Mrs. Sidney F. Blake must have been the wife of this Sidney F. Blake.  Looking further in the SIA record for Blake, we find this key entry:

"Additional materials include...photographs of Blake, his wife Doris Holmes Blake, and family and colleagues."

Aha! Another Doris!

Googling “Doris Holmes Blake” confirms that she was a coleopterist (a person who studies beetles) and almost certainly the “Mrs. Sidney F. Blake” referred to in the NSF grant.

We now have two prime candidates for answering the mystery of who authored this travelog. But which one was it? Doris Mabel Cochran, the herpetologist, or Doris Holmes Blake, the coleopterist?

Reading Between the Lines

Ellen, our reference archivist, came up with an idea: if we could find confirmed writing samples from both Dorises, we could figure out which one of them was more likely to be the author of the travelog.

Once again, our collections came into play. SIA happens to have 37 boxes worth of papers from Doris Holmes Blake, containing letters, diaries and materials from her personal life and career.

And it turns out in this collection there’s a letter written from Doris Mabel Cochran to Doris Holmes Blake. With this letter, we had definitive indication of authorship, which gave us a clear handwriting sample.  In comparing handwriting, archivists look at whether the writer makes heavy or light marks, or have unique flair on particular letters or phrases.

In looking through Cochrane’s letter to Blake, we saw that she had a very distinctive way of writing “to”. The horizontal mark on the “t” is almost diagonal, which appears to be a slash going upward from the “o”. It appears almost like an X.

And when we compared that to a “to” in the travelog, we see a close similarity.

Comparing travelog Handwriting to Letter from Doris Cochran
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In comparison, Doris Holmes Blake has a very different style.  The SIA records indicate that “An immediately apparent peculiarity of the diaries is that they were written in Old German script. Beginning in 1907, for privacy, Blake began writing isolated phrases and sentences in script; by the end of 1909 most entries were entirely in [that] script, a practice which continued for the rest of Blake's life.”

As you can see, Blake's "to" are quite different. The top line is very long and straight.

Image from a Page of Doris Blake's Diary: note absence of distinctive stroke on "to"
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The handwriting analysis, combined with the knowledge that both women were on the trip together, provides a strong indication that the travelog was indeed authored by Doris Mabel Cochran. But Ellen had one more idea -- if Doris Holmes Blake was such a diarist, could she have also written about her trip to South America?

She went back to the records. One clue was a reference to “Doris’ Birthday” which was an entry dated to January 11th, 1963. Ellen was able to find Doris Holmes Blake’s diary entry on January 11th, 1963 and lo and behold, it says “71st Birthday.”

Image from a Page of Doris Blake's Diary on Jan 11, 1963: 71st Birthday
Click Image to Enlarge

Boom. Case closed.

The Questions Continue

We started this adventure with a question: “Who wrote this travelog?” which we answered: “Doris Mabel Cochran.”  The “other” Doris was friend and colleague, Doris Holmes Blake.

Doris Mable Cochran holding a snakeDoris Holmes Blake at her desk with her pet lizard on her shoulder
Doris Mabel Cochran
NSF scientist, author of the travelog
Doris Holmes Blake (aka Mrs. Sydney Blake)
Fellow scientist & travel companion

Along the way, we acquired some new questions: “Who are Wanda and Mildred, the women who gifted Cochran the notebook itself?”  We know that Doris wrote to Wanda on Dec. 6, 1962 and Feb. 2, 1963 -- perhaps someone has Wanda's papers with letters from Doris Cochran or maybe Wanda herself is still living and can tell us stories to fill in the gaps of history.

This is the beauty of archiving and the power of our collections. It has been incredible to have digital volunteers uncover history with us together, and who knows what we’ll find next!

If you know anything about Wanda or Mildred, please send us a note!

Please share this story with a friend and tell them about the Transcription Center.

Sarah Allen
Presidential Innovation Fellow


  1. Hi,
    About two weeks ago I came to the same conclusion that there were two Doris on that trip. One was interested in the bugs, so I presumed that she was entomologist. The other one’s interest were amphibians and reptiles, and that Doris (Cochran) was the write of the journal.

  2. Love it! This question has bothered me since I cataloged the log for the Field Book Project. I assumed the "Doris" referred to was as Pam Henson suggested, Cochran's friend of the same name. Because there were two Dorises, though, I could never be sure which one was writing. Thank you SIA history detectives. "Boom, case closed" ---- ha ha, that was classic!

    Sonoe Nakasone